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2004!

2004 was one of the best years of my life.

For the first time in six years, my family was safe. No one moved, no one died, nothing came crashing down. We didn’t travel. Our first full year in Baltimore. We were all still getting used to, and settling with, the city’s dearth of everything compared to Manhattan: the food was worse, the teachers and students were dumber, and the land was so punishingly dull. The movie theaters were a lot worse, too—although I’ve written fondly about the Towson Commons 8 and the Loews White Marsh 16, they were a significant step down from the United Artists Union Square 14, Loews Village 7, Village East, AMC 19th St., and many other Manhattan multiplexes. It didn’t matter, because the same month our parents told us we were moving to Baltimore, I saw that teaser trailer for Kill Bill. November 2002, 11 months away from seeing Volume 1 in the shoebox that was the Rotunda Cinematheque, a theater I miss, one that reminded me of the smaller theaters at the Village East.

But that was 2003—the following year, I saw as many “art films” (i.e. whatever Oscarbait/Miramax stamped adult contemporary drama (Sideways) or political thriller (Syriana) made it through, with thrilling exceptions like Elephant, The Clearing, Napoleon Dynamite, I Heart Huckabees, and House of Sand and Fog) as blockbusters and comedies. Paying close attention to Quentin Tarantino’s every word along with his movies led me to Sergio Leone and blaxploitation. But I didn’t do much digging that year, in part because of the plethora of fantastic new films coming out every week.

There were so many great movies that year: Collateral, Kill Bill: Volume 2, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fahrenheit 9/11, Team America: World Police, Man on Fire, Saw, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Palindromes, In Good Company, Garden State, Along Came Polly, Super Size Me, Million Dollar Baby, Spanglish, Eulogy, Birth, Shaun of the Dead, The Triplets of Belleville, Troy, Hellboy, Before Sunset, Meet the Fockers, White Chicks, A Dirty Shame, The Aviator, The Girl Next Door, The Butterfly Effect, The Village, Spider-Man 2, Coffee and Cigarettes, Spartan.

I didn’t love, or “get,” all of these movies when I saw them. A few look a lot worse now. But it felt incredible going to the movies in 2004. Everything was humming, and it wasn’t just the halcyon daydreams of a recent transplant desperate for something to dive into. 2004 was one of the great movie years, like 1939, 1941, 1959, 1960, 1972, 1975, 1999, and most recently, 2019. There wasn’t a two-week stretch without a great, good, or at least interesting new movie. Not “interesting” as in I will never fucking watch that, but thanks for the tip—interesting like The Forgotten, or The Bourne Supremacy, or even Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. Digital filmmaking was still just an outlier and a proposal pushed by George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez; within three years, major releases like Superbad and Zodiac would be shot with digital cameras, albeit distributed and seen by everyone on 35mm prints. We were all gradually, bit by bit, losing it.

And while there weren’t nearly as many movie theaters in Baltimore as there were in New York, we did have a great video store with two locations nearby called Video Americain, and that’s where I went looking for those blaxploitation movies Tarantino kept talking about. I went blind and ended up with the worst ones: Dolemite and its sequel. I don’t remember watching Foxy Brown around then, and I was shocked to find a weathered DVD of The Big Bird Cage in my parents’ attic last month. That’s one of my favorite exploitation films, but I thought I hadn’t seen it until 2021 or so; maybe it was more like 2004. But there’s no way—how could I not remember?

Why didn’t I keep looking for more movies at Video Americain then? I knew about Coffy, Carrie, Django, Band of Outsiders, and Lady Snowblood when I was 11, but it took me years to come to them. Why? I had no social life in 2004, and it was the last year before I really became obsessed with music, and movies took a backseat in my mind. I didn’t read as much as I should’ve, so what was taking up my time besides sleeping with the TV on?

Video games.

A bad habit carried over from New York, the one thing I should’ve left behind. A couple of years wasted, long after I had played the only games I remember: Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Metal Gear Solid II: Sons of Liberty. As much as I love it, I’d be happy to have never known Katamari Damacy, and stopped playing video games completely sometime around my family’s move to Baltimore in June 2003. One year later, in the summer of 2004, I’d finally learn how movies are actually made at the 5th Wall Young Filmmakers Workshop, and if I hadn’t been zapped by too many hours in front of PlayStation, Xbox, and GameCube games I don’t remember, I might’ve moved more quickly through the canon, and maybe I might’ve worked on more than one or two sets other than my own. It’s the only blemish on that year, and only in retrospect, so looking at the calendar, all I can say is something I’d rather sing: 2004!

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith

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